Salvage Mice

starstarstarhalf

“Mice-ensed to thrill… Albeit, barely.”

Mai (Tanimura) and her partner (Sato) form a team – the titular rodents – who recover art and artifacts, and return them to their “rightful” owners – quotes used advisedly, it’s vague on the details. However, Mai is betrayed, and framed for the robberies actually being committed by the gang operating under the Evil Western Dude (Heselton, who was also the main villain in Karate Girl). Mai encounters Mio (Nagano), part of ‘Hiroshima Cleans’, a group of volunteers who help keep the city tidy. Initially, Mio thinks Mai is the villain, but is eventually convinced that the real bad guy is elsewhere, and the pair team up to take on the villains, including both Mai’s ex and Evil Western Dude.

The main problem is Tanimura, who is incredibly unconvincing in terms of martial-arts skills. Even though her character is supposedly more thief than fighter, there is much more of the latter than the former, and she simply isn’t up to it. Nagano fares rather better in this regard, and there are a few sequences which are decently put-together and well-executed. However, even here, you still find yourself yearning for a presence like Rina Takeda or Jeeja Yanin, who are capable of really upping the pace and delivering blows that look like they have real impact. Too often, that’s not the case, especially when the heroines team up to take on Evil Western Dude.

What works a little better than expected is the stuff around the edges, like Mai pretending to be a tourist to lure Mio into befriending her, or Mio’s relationship with her non-violent colleague in Hiroshima Cleans. This kind of stuff could be grating, but it’s handled with a light enough touch to pass for frothy entertainment, and fits with what could be a showreel for the Hiroshima Tourist Board. There’s more than a hint of anime series Saint Tail here, and it’s entirely PG-rated. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but here, its more blandly inoffensive than family-friendly, and passes the time acceptably, without being at all memorable.

Dir: Ryuta Tasaki
Star: Mitsuki Tanimura, Julia Nagano, Tomohito Sato, Richard Heselton

BAMF Girls’ Club

What happens when you take Buffy, Lisbeth Salander, Katniss Everdeen and other favourite action heroines – along with the whiny Bella from Twilight! – and make them live together in a house? You get the BAMF Girls Club

Ninja Girl (Kunoichi)

starstarhalf

“Save your time, save your money, and go watch Karate Girl instead. Again, if necessary.”

From the director of Alien vs. Ninja, the story here centres on a pair of ninjas, Shimotsuki and Hyotsuki, who are carrying on what appears to be a family tradition, kidnapping women from other clans’ villages, and taking them back to their own for nefarious purposes – let’s just say, the phrase “tools of pleasure” crops up on more than one occasion. They ar returning with their latest batch of four, including Kisaragi (Takeda), who is a ninja in her own right. With the help of a mysterious man (Sato), Kisuragi and her colleagues in imprisonment are released from their bondage – but that is only the first obstacle between them and their freedom. Of course, it turns out the heroine is not quite as innocent as she appears, and has an agenda of her own, because her mother was kidnapped by the same sleazy ninjas, when Kisuragi was just a baby.

Barely an hour long, this still somehow manages to outstay its welcome, managing to spend far more time engaging in borderling misogyny, rather than anything remotely empowering, and a distinctly sleazy tone with plot elements involving castration, venereal disease and a great deal more molestation of helpless women that I generally like (particularly in my ninja flicks). There is really only a single battle of note, when Kisuragi gets to take on one of her captors in a battle that is fairly well-shot and does a good job od showcasing Takeda’s undeniable skills. However, you don’t get the sense that there was more than a couple of days work involved, and even given the short running time, it’s still a negligible amount of what’s on view, and there just isn’t anything like sufficient elsewhere to keep you interested or entertained.

I haven’t seen Chiba’s earlier work, but it seems to be basically the same “head off to a forest for some film-making” approach that we see here. That can work in the right hands – Versus is justly the most well-know example of that genre. However, here, it’s more like a cheap excuse to disguise the obviously limited production values than anything else. Hopefully, Takeda will soon move beyond this kind of Z-grade dreck: I did read rumours of her being in Chocolate 2, which would be nice if said rumours had the slightest grounding in fact, which seems questionable. Hey, we can dream, can’t we?

Dir: Seiji Chiba
Star: Rina Takeda, Yuichi Sato, Masanori Mimoto, Mitsuki Koga

Big Tits Zombie

starstarstarhalf

“A better trailer than a movie.”

There seem to have been a spate of these recently. Not just zombie flicks – though there’s been no shortage of those – but zombie flicks set in or around strip clubs. This is the Japanese take, and follows more or less the expected pattern of such things, combining nudity, violence and self-awareness in varying degrees. At least initially, this is definitely leaning towards a 70’s, grindhouse aesthetic, but after a few minutes, that aspect vanishes, and never really returns. Instead, it’s a fairly straight-forward tale of a motley crew of stereotypical strippers, e.g. the money-hungry one, the intellectual one (who quotes George Bataille), who work at a pretty crap club in a spa town, but who find a tunnel leading across the street, which brings them to a book of dark magic and a well containing an apparently infinite supply of zombies.

It takes its time getting that far, and given the title, it’s a lot more restrained in terms of nudity than you might expect. It’s clearly not intended to be taken seriously, and does seem to be riffing on the genre (another of the alternate titles is Hot Spring Zombies vs. Strippers 5). At one point, a character says, “Must be a cheap movie. They’re big recently. Like some girl fighting zombies with a sword” – perhaps a reference to Onechanbara, which is also echoed in some of the costumes. But the make-up is largely bargain-basement stuff, and so are most of the FX, with obvious wires at some points, and an over-reliance on unconvincing digital work.

The real problem here, is likely that it tries to be too many things, and ends up being not all that good at any of them. It’s a fairly poor zombie flick, and certainly can’t hold a candle to the uber-gory genre entries also coming out of Japan in the past few years. As noted, it’s pretty tame for a movie set where it is, and none of the more traditional aspects of cinema (characters, performances and script) are interesting enough to make up for those shortcomings on the grindhouse front. It doesn’t exactly outstay its welcome, at a brisk 73 minutes, and can be commended for that, and certainly being aware of (and, largely, not giving a damn about) its limitations. However, like many of its kind, the sizzle is considerably better than the steak.

Dir: Takao Nakano
Star: Sola Aoi, Risa Kasumi, Mari Sakurai, Tamayo
a.k.a. The Big Tits Dragon

Naked Soldier

starstarstarstar

Ten years after Maggie Q got her career as an action heroine kickstarted with Weapon, and twenty after Killer rampaged its way into cult status, Jennifer Tse takes over – bearing more than a passing resemblance to her predecessor, I think. I think it’s kinda cool how the series gets revisited every decade, regular as clockwork: maybe famed producer Wong Jing has a house payment to make or something? Admittedly, there’s not much more than a tangential connection between the entries; three different directors, three different stars, and not much overlap in terms of plot. However, they still share a common approach, fetishising the female form and the act of assassination, with no shortage of style, and are the longest-running (in terms of years) GWG series around.

The story of this third installment opens with a prologue from 15 years ago, when Interpol agent CK Long (Sammo Hung) intercepts a $35 million shipment of drugs. As punishment, its owners unleash Madam Rosa and her killers on him, as he enjoys a nice family Christmas in Florida: most of his relations are killed, Long barely escapes with his life as his house is blown up, but watches as his daugher is whisked away by Rosa, to be brainwashed and trained as one of her army of assassins. Back in the present, Rosa is now sending our her minions to kill the five leaders of a proposed international drugs cartel. Long is assigned to the cases, because of his familiarity with the way Rosa operates, and is startled, to say the least, when DNA testing shows one of the killers appears to be his long-lost daughter. Not as startled as he will be, when she turns up in his apartment, with murder in mind. Naturally, his investigating partner (On) meets Phoenix in her undercover role as a student, and falls in love with her, at a speed only ever seen in movies more concerned about action than relationships.

There’s a lot to enjoy here, not least the presence of Hung, who has always been an under-rated talent in my eyes. He’s pretty damn sprightly for a 60-year old: a step slower perhaps, but there are still moments to treasure here, such as the chopstick duel with his other daughter. He served another important purpose here: for my wife, his early presence legitimized watching a film called Naked Soldier, which I suspect might otherwise have led to some dripping sarcasm – even though she remembered and enjoyed Weapon, and as in its immediate predecessor, the actual nudity in this is confined to the title. There’s another veteran of HK cinema who shows up at the end. While I’ll avoid spoilers, it was someone whom we were equally delighted to see – even though he was single-handedly responsible for putting Chris off Chinese food for a year!

However, these are supporting roles and here, we’re more interested in how Tse and the other ladies acquit themselves. And there are a number on both sides, even if, early on, things do move relatively slowly into gear. Despite token male killer, Black Dragon, Madam Rosa still has her admirable fondness for female assassins, and we see them in action early on as Ivy, Selina (Beilke) and Phoenix carry out their missions in a Vegas hotel, boxing gym and at a funeral respectively. [Selina’s viciousness is quite belied by her final haircut, which appears to have come straight from a Flock of Seagulls fan convention!] One of their targets is an ass-kicking Thai gangsteress, who teams up with a gay Dutch guy against one of the assassins, in a nice handicap brawl at a boutique.

naked_soldier_ver2_xxlgIt’s mostly the end, when Long, his daughter and Phoenix head off to Madam Rosa’s island, that things really kick in, as it turns out that betrayal is a two-headed beast. There, we get an excellent series of battles: one-on-one, two-on-one, many-on-one, that mor than make up for the relatively relaxed pace over the first hour or so, and feel like a throwback (not least becauge of Hung’s presence). Corey Yuen does the action: his track record speaks for itself, with solid action heroine entries such as So Close and D.O.A. on his resume, and this would be another. There’s plenty of variety and invention on view, up to and including the climactic battle between Phoenix and her nemesis, on one of the lethal training apparatus in Rosa’s lair.

There are some negatives, not least Long’s daughter, who serves little or no purpose beyond unfunny comedy, and appears to be played by an actress significantly older than she needs to be. And certainly, aspects of this don’t make much sense. For instance, why did Rosa’s efforts at revenge take a sabbatical for 15 years, after having killed everyone but her intended target? Or why are proceedings supposedly set in 1995, when it obviously isn’t 1995, for example, the tech everyone uses? However, there’s nothing a genre fan won’t be able to overlook, and plenty they’ll be able to appreciate, making this a worthy entry in the series: I wouldn’t mind if they skipped the 10-year waiting period for the next entry. Failing that: roll on, 2022!

Dir: Marco Mak
Stars: Jennifer Tse, Sammo Hung, Andy On, Ankie Beilke

The Hunger Games (film)

starstarstar

“Not as good as the book. There. I said it.”

Ok, it has become the biggest-grossing action heroine film ever at the US box-office. So there’s that. But truth be told, it’s not actually all that good. Sure, it’s impressively-staged, and Lawrence does very well with a role. But there are a number of problems, even as it follows the great majority of the novel. If you’re not aware of the plot (and didn’t read our book review!), I’ll summarize. In a future dystopia, every year the 12 districts in the US submit a teenage girl and boy to the capital, where they battle to the death in a televised spectacle. This time, the resourceful hunter Katniss (Lawrence) volunteers, after her younger sister is selected; she and her male counterpart, baker’s son Peeta (Hutcherson), have to go into battle with the other 22 contestants knowing only one can survive.

At 142 minutes, it’s likely too long, especially as almost the first half is taken up with the pre-game activity, which is distinctly low in thrills. Even once the games start, the action quotient is fairly low, with Katniss seeming do a lot more creeping around on her own. That’s fine in a book, which can fill things up with internal monologue, but it’s not the case in a movie. And what action there is, is badly-shot to the point of utter confusion. There were also a couple of changes from the book that weakened it: the rule change in the middle seemed more of a convenient deus ex machine than in the novel, where it flowed naturally from the Katniss/Peeta alliance, and the genetically-engineered creatures which appear at the end originally were described as being created to look like the fallen competitors, a marvellously horrific touch. In contrast, the movie doesn’t add all that much, in style or content.

On the plus side, I did enjoy Lawrence, who creates exactly the sort of strong, resourceful heroine we need more of, in all media. Unlike certain young adult book series I could mention, she doesn’t seek or need male approval or assistance. In fact, Peeta is basically a wuss, who would be dead without someone stronger to whom he can attach himself – it’s a beautiful bit of role-reversal. I also enjoyed a lot of the supporting characters, particularly Harrelson as the former winner turned alcoholic mentor, and Stanley Tucci as the TV interviewer who, I suspect, is much smarter than he seems. We should also remember that this is the first part of a trilogy, so probably needs to engage in more scene-setting. We’ll see whether the rest of the series can deliver a better handle on the action, while sustaining strong elements, such as the excellent lead.

Dir: Garry Ross
Star: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson